Restoring a 1959 Volkswagen Beetle
Stripping the paint from an iconic automobile reveals its former lives.
Jul 21, 2021
Sculpture conservators typically work on priceless, one-of-a-kind works by artists like Pablo Picasso or Louise Nevelson. So how did a MoMA conservator end up working on an object that was mass produced 20,000,000 times on an assembly line? In preparation for the exhibition Automania—which explores the car as a pivotal object of 20th-century design—the experts at Automotive Restorations, Inc., in Stratford, Connecticut, discovered that under the paint of MoMA’s 1959 Volkswagen Beetle, pockets of rust were slowly bubbling up to the surface. If left untreated, they would engulf the entire car.
Removing the paint down to bare metal revealed the Volkswagen’s entire history. This Beetle didn’t always sit in a museum in pristine condition—it had a life out in the world as a working vehicle, complete with past paint jobs and repairs that suggest it had crashed and rolled. “The automobile is something we all grew up with,” says Roger Griffith, the conservator who oversaw the Beetle’s restoration. “It’s something that’s part of our everyday. And if you’re going to have a collection that is inclusive of all design, I think the automobile has to be included...otherwise we’ve skipped something.”
On March 12, 2020, as we were filming the Beetle being repainted at Automotive Restorations, we received word that museums, including MoMA, would be shutting their doors immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly two years after we began production on this episode of Conservation Stories, we can finally share the full account of how this car was prepared for MoMA’s galleries.
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